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What Is the History of Marijuana?

Cannabis has a long and illustrious history. Cannabis was originally used in central Asia or western China, where it was cultivated for thousands of years. Cannabis has been used for its therapeutic effects for millenniums. Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopeia (2800 BC) contains the first written record of cannabis use.

Cannabis is used for a variety of purposes, both recreational and medical. It is the most commonly used illicit drug globally, with an estimated 188 million users worldwide. While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, it is legalized for recreational or medicinal use in some form in 38 states plus Washington, D.C. Marijuana, also known as cannabis or pot, has a long history of human use.

The history of cannabis cultivation in America dates back to the early colonists, who grew hemp for textiles. Political and racial factors in the 20th century led to the criminalization of marijuana in the United States.

Cannabis or hemp grew in Central Asia before being brought to Africa, Europe, and eventually the Americas. Hemp fiber was used to make clothes, paper, sails, and rope, while its seeds were consumed as food or used for oil. Because it is a fast-growing plant that is simple to cultivate and has many uses, hemp was intensively grown throughout colonial America.

The early hemp plants had minimal amounts of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects. There’s evidence that ancient civilizations recognized the intoxicating properties of cannabis. They may have grown some strains to create higher THC levels for religious ceremonies or medical practice.


When was weed discovered?
Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopeia 2800 B.C. contains the first written record of cannabis use. Cannabis has a long and illustrious history. Cannabis was originally used in central Asia or western China, where it was cultivated for thousands of years. Cannabis has been used for its therapeutic effects for millenniums.

Who was the first person to smoke weed?
The very first user is not documented, but the oldest record of marijuana use is 2800 B.C. in Emperor Shen Nung’s pharmacopeia.

Medical Marijuana

Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy, an Irish physician, studying in India in the 1830s, discovered that cannabis extracts might help reduce stomach pain and vomiting in patients suffering from cholera.

Cannabis extract medicines were available throughout Europe and the United States from the late 1800s through to World War I for the treatment of stomach issues and other issues.

THC was assumed to be the source of marijuana’s medicinal effects (today’s science is showing otherwise, pointing to cannabinoids, terpenes, and flavanoids all working together to produce an “entourage effect”). THC, the psychotropic component responsible for marijuana’s mind-altering effects, engages with areas of the brain that can help reduce nausea and increase hunger. In fact, two medications containing THC have been authorized by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration ( Marinol and Syndros) to relieve side effects for patients receiving chemo and the loss of appetite that causes “wasting syndrome” in AIDS patients.

Cannabis extracts were prescribed by 19th-century doctors and pharmacists to treat a variety of ailments ranging from cough, fever, rheumatism, asthma, and diabetes to venereal (sexually transmitted) illnesses like gonorrhea. This was long before modern medicine; in those days, a slew of herbal medicines (as well as animal-based medicines like snake oil) were being sold as cures for every known ailment. While many of these products were ineffective and occasionally harmful, cannabis and opium extracts were commonly abused.

Recreational Cannabis

The oldest known evidence of marijuana being used recreationally comes from the Greek historian Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C. He wrote that members of a Eurasian culture known as the Scythians inhaled the vapors of cannabis seeds and flowers placed on hot rocks. It may not have sounded very appealing to him Greek readers, however, who preferred wine.

The first drug to compete with alcohol for popularity in Europe was tobacco, which arrived in the United States in the late 1500s. A century later, coffee was introduced from Africa. Although Europeans grew hemp and occasionally ingested cannabis, its appeal did not compare to that of alcohol, tobacco, or coffee.

In contrast to Europe, cannabis (in the more potent form known as hashish) was quite popular in the Middle East and South Asia after about 800 AD. The spread of Islam is responsible. The Koran forbids Muslims from drinking alcohol or using other intoxicating drugs, but it does not prohibit cannabis. Cannabis is prohibited in most Islamic nations today, although.

Marijuana was not widely used in the United States for recreational purposes until after World War I. During Mexico’s Revolution, immigrants from Mexico to the United States introduced Americans to the leisure practice of smoking marijuana. Mass unemployment and social tension caused by the Great Depression exacerbated anti-Mexican prejudice and fueled fears about “the terrible weed.” Twenty-nine states had outlawed cannabis by 1931.

The United States Cracking Down on Marijuana

In 1906, the United States Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which required that cannabis and other herbal products be accurately labeled. This was the start of cannabis sale laws in the United States. As more people learned that cannabis-based medicines might become habit-forming, some states passed stricter legislation on them.

Between 1914 and 1925, 26 states passed legislation prohibiting cannabis. The anti-marijuana statutes were generally uncontroversial, passing with little public debate or even legislative discussion.

Following a Hollywood drug imbroglio in 1921, Hearst’s papers launched an annual anti-narcotics crusade with a breathless and weeping essay by celebrity reporter “sob sister” Winifred Black, who also performed under the name Annie Laurie.

Hearst’s efforts, timed to parallel Hobson’s yearly Narcotic Education Week, took advantage of a new angle during the second half of the decade: marijuana as a largely unknown drug responsible for grisly cruelty and murder. The fact that marijuana smoking was a habit of immigrants and the working class impacted its prohibition.

The conflation of murder, torture and mindless violence with marijuana was not based on facts or actual occurrences but rather on the reporters’ vivid imaginations. Until a few decades ago, people were familiar with opioids from their widespread medical applications and cocaine from its inclusion in drugstore potions like Coca-Cola.

Journalists, politicians, cops, and middle-class readers had no prior knowledge of marijuana, allowing it to serve as a vehicle for their most negative preconceptions: addictive, personality-destroying, violent. A new “murder” drug must have appeared like manna from heaven for the journalists tasked with writing annual anti-narcotics sermons.

Harry J. Anslinger, a former Prohibition Bureau assistant commissioner who served as head of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Bureau from 1930 to 1962, initially opposed federal legislation against marijuana because he feared it would be difficult for his organization to enforce. However, while promoting a public relations campaign supporting nationwide drug control legislation, Anslinger began to capitalize on fears about marijuana. The passing of the Marijuana Tax Act in 1937 was lobbied for by Anslinger.

In the House, the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act, which imposed a transfer tax on dealers, passed in less than a half-hour with little media coverage. Members of the House appear to be unfamiliar with marijuana. Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn (D-Tex.) said that marijuana was “some sort of narcotic.” Another Representative, John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), seemed to confuse it with a different plant.

In hearings, the sole witness to testify against the bill was a representative of the American Medical Association, who congress members accused of obstructionism and falsifying AMA sentiments.

Anslinger tried to stop the publication of a combined American Bar Association-American Medical Association study that said penalties for possession were too harsh.

Throughout the 1950s, lawmakers and journalists seemed to lump all illicit drugs together as dangerous and bad. They saw heroin, cocaine, and marijuana all as “dope”- dangerous, addicting, frightening, and undesirable.

Even Anslinger conceded in the 1960s that the criminal penalties for youthful marijuana use at the time were too harsh.

In 1967, not just hippie protestors but also reputable mainstream media sources like Life, Newsweek, and Look questioned why cannabis was banned at all.

Meanwhile, between 1965 and 1970, the number of state-level pot busts increased exponentially.

The War On Drugs

Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968 on a platform of “law and order” for a nation shaken by riots, demonstrations, and assassinations. He aggressively courted journalists and media corporations to participate in what he called “The War on Drugs.”

The government pursued a public relations campaign to intimidate radio stations into stopping playing drug-related music and enlisting television host Art Linkletter and Elvis Presley as anti-drug spokespeople.

In 1970, at a White House gathering for television executives, Nixon collected signatures from the heads of twenty prime-time shows ranging from “Hawaii Five-O” to “Marcus Welby M.D.” By 1971, the Nixon administration had squeezed $37 million in commercial airtime for anti-drug messages out of television stations and sponsors.

The Nixon administration revised federal drug policy in a number of ways, with one major goal being to weaken penalties for certain types of criminal behavior. The powers of law enforcement (including the use of no-knock and late-night search warrants) were expanded. The federal anti-drug agencies were reorganized to respond more directly to White House directives.

In 1970, the United States Congress passed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act, which designated marijuana as the most severe category of drugs with no medical use, and appointed The Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse into power. The Commission was led by former governor of Pennsylvania Raymond Shafer and included members selected by the president, speaker of the House, and president pro-tem of the Senate.

In 1973, the Nixon administration fought against opposition from the scientific community to block a congressional report that recommended eliminating criminal penalties for marijuana possession and ending the government’s anti-drug education programs. The White House tapes captured Nixon pressing Shafer to reject the study’s findings, and he refused to receive it in public.

When asked about his attitude toward marijuana in a Frontline documentary, John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s director of the Narcotics Treatment Administration, responded, “When I first came into the administration,” he said. “The president told me: ‘You’re the drug expert, not me,’ on every issue but one — and that was the decriminalization of marijuana. He said, ‘If you make any hint of supporting decriminalization, you are history. Everything else, you figure it out. But that one, I’m telling you, that’s the deal.’

“Believe me, it is true, the thing about the drug [marijuana], once people cross that line from ‘straight society’ to the ‘drug society,’ it’s a very great possibility they are going to go further,”

“You see homosexuality, dope, immorality in general. These are the enemies of a strong society. That’s why the communists and left-wingers are pushing the stuff; they are trying to destroy us.”

– Nixon told Linkletter in a private conversation preserved by the White House’s secret taping system.

A Slow Changing of the Tides

Despite Nixon’s steadfast anti-marijuana policy, there was increasing agreement that criminal penalties for marijuana were unjustified in the early and middle 1970s, and medical and legal authorities were contending with the rationality of harsh anti-marijuana laws.

In 1977, after it had become so popular and people’s concerns about its dangers had begun to pass into history, Jimmy Carter called for the legalization of marijuana. In a message to Congress in 1977, Carter noted that anti-marijuana legislation is more harmful to marijuana users than the drug itself.

Today it is possible to joke about marijuana in the media—Snoop Dogg, Willie Nelson, and Cheech and Chong are still around—but decades of powerful anti-drug messaging have made it nearly impossible for anyone to support something called “drugs.”

There have been long-term connections between political decisions on drug control and attempts to influence public opinion. The media is a powerful tool to help shape public opinion and is still used extensively to demonize drugs and those who use them.

Following the anti-drug campaigns of recent years, it is interesting to note that today’s liberalization efforts have largely succeeded by characterizing marijuana as a medicine and stressing the economic and social ramifications of incarceration caused by drug laws.

Every year, about 800,000 Americans are arrested for marijuana offenses. Because of a first offense, few people wind up in jail, but this encounter with the criminal justice system has major repercussions, including the loss of eligibility for federal student financial aid and subsidized housing.

The “Three-Strikes” statutes, which were passed by 22 states and the federal government between 1993 and 1995 and mandated lengthy jail sentences for a convict convicted of a third felony, guarantee that marijuana offenses have serious penalties.

Despite the fact that black Americans smoke marijuana at about the same rate as white individuals, they are about four times more likely to be arrested.

It is very clear that there is much work to do when it comes to cleaning up toxic drug policy and helping those hurt by the “War on Drugs”.

How many US states have legalized weed?

United States jurisdictions with legalized recreational cannabis 
Jurisdiction Legalization date Licensed sales since Legalization method
Washington (state) December 6, 2012 July 8, 2014 Initiated Ballot Measure
Colorado December 10, 2012[189] January 1, 2014 Initiated Ballot Measure
Alaska February 24, 2015 October 29, 2016 Initiated Ballot Measure
Washington, D.C. February 26, 2015 N/A Initiated Ballot Measure
Oregon July 1, 2015 October 1, 2015 Initiated Ballot Measure
California November 9, 2016 January 1, 2018 Initiated Ballot Measure
Massachusetts December 15, 2016 November 20, 2018 Initiated Ballot Measure
Nevada January 1, 2017 July 1, 2017 Initiated Ballot Measure
Maine January 30, 2017 October 9, 2020 Initiated Ballot Measure
Vermont July 1, 2018 October 1, 2022[190] Legislative Bill
Northern Mariana Islands September 21, 2018 June 16, 2021[191] Legislative Bill
Michigan December 6, 2018 December 1, 2019 Initiated Ballot Measure
Guam April 4, 2019 Not yet started Legislative Bill
Illinois January 1, 2020 January 1, 2020 Legislative Bill
Arizona November 30, 2020 January 22, 2021 Initiated Ballot Measure
Montana January 1, 2021 January 1, 2022[192] Initiated Ballot Measure
New Jersey February 22, 2021 Not yet started Legislatively Referred Ballot Measure
New York March 31, 2021 April 1, 2022[193] Legislative Bill
New Mexico June 29, 2021[194] April 1, 2022 Legislative Bill
Virginia July 1, 2021 January 1, 2024 Legislative Bill
Connecticut July 1, 2021 Not yet started Legislative Bill


“History of Cannabis.” The University of Sydney, https://www.sydney.edu.au/lambert/medicinal-cannabis/history-of-cannabis.html.

NIDA. “History of Cannabis, Part 1.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5 Feb. 2015, https://archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/history-of-cannabis-part-1. Accessed 1 Apr. 2022.

NIDA. “History of Cannabis, Part 2.” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 5 Mar. 2015, https://archives.drugabuse.gov/blog/post/history-of-cannabis-part-2. Accessed 1 Apr. 2022.

Siff, Stephen. “The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History.” The Illegalization of Marijuana: A Brief History, OSU.edu, May 2014, https://origins.osu.edu/article/illegalization-marijuana-brief-history.

Marijuana – HISTORY. https://www.history.com/topics/crime/history-of-marijuana

“Legality of Cannabis by U.S. Jurisdiction.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 14 Feb. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Legality_of_cannabis_by_U.S._jurisdiction.

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